Insurgents wage revolutionary warfare and, for the most part, insurgencies are revolutions. Revolutionary insurgent warfare has played a major role in the military history of the twentieth century, particularly in the so-called third world. In the earlier part of this century, insurgencies often resulted from emerging nationalism and ant colonialism within the empires of the European powers.
Political and economic inequities played a major role in motivating these anti colonial movements, and the spark for revolution was often provided by perceptions of minimal chances for political and economic betterment.
The postcolonial era did not produce much improvement to the situation. Many colonial administrations
in the third world were replaced by indigenous regimes that were more repressive, corrupt, and inept than their colonial predecessors. Thus, the stage was set for further revolutionary wars.
Although there are many examples of both colonial and postcolonial insurgencies, the conflict in Vietnam exemplifies both types of struggles. In what is often called the First Vietnam War, Vietnamese insurgents defeated their French colonial masters in a prolonged struggle but were forced to settle for a partial victory. After the French defeat in 1954, the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel between Ho Chi Minh’s victorious Vietminh in the North and a non-Communist regime supported by the United States in the South. In the Second Vietnam War (known to most Americans as the Vietnam War), southern insurgents, supported by the North, sought to overthrow the southern regime and throw out its US supporters.
In the postcolonial era, many insurgencies have involved the superpowers to one degree or another. The United States and the Soviets have, time after time, backed opposing sides in attempts to gain influence in the third world and wrest advantage in international power politics. As a result, it is all too easy to forget that insurgencies are, first and foremost, internal struggles for political power and only secondarily East versus West confrontations.
They are, after all, civil wars de facto if not de jure. For example, Americans, because of the
circumstances and politics of the struggle, often forget that even the Second Vietnam War can be seen as a civil war. From the viewpoint of the United States, North Vietnam was committing aggression against South Vietnam, a viewpoint that provided justification for American intervention.
However, from the perspective of the North Vietnamese and the southern insurgents they supported, the struggle was a civil war for political control of greater Vietnam.
Revolutionary insurgent warfare has had many theorists. They differ from one another in some respects, but they agree far more than they differ. The fountainhead for most third world revolutionaries is Mao Tse-tung, who put his ideas to the test in the long civil war in China as he attempted to overthrow the government of Chiang Kai-shek. The fact that he was ultimately successful has given Mao’s theories great credibility.
Mao visualized peasant-based “peoples’ revolutionary wars” that were protracted struggles waged to wear down and discredit the government while at the same time gaining support from a larger and larger proportion of the peasantry.
By basing the insurgency in the countryside and by expanding its support, Mao ensured that the government would become ever more isolated, impotent, and surrounded in the cities .Mao viewed the struggle as a flexible three-phased conflict.
In the first stage, the insurgents establish secure operating bases in remote areas (or in sanctuaries across an international border) virtually inaccessible to government troops.
Stage two involves ever-increasing guerrilla warfare -attacking and overrunning government outposts, seizing arms, demoralising government forces and their supporters, and demonstrating the government’s inability to control and protect the populace.
In the third and final stage, the balance of power shifts to the insurgents who can then openly take to the field in large units using conventional tactics to destroy demoralized government forces and overthrow the government.
Although Mao envisioned progressive stages, his concept is flexible. If the situation dictates, the revolutionaries can fall back to a previous stage and work to create a more favourable opportunity for progress.
However, according to Mao, military action is only a small part of a complex program designed to disaffect the population from the government . Revolutionary warfare relies on a sophisticated package of political, psychological, and economic programs all designed to take advantage of grievances against the existing power structure and to win support (or at least neutrality) from the population . Winning that support is the key to changing the correlation of forces to favour the insurgents.
Mao’s basic theory of insurgent warfare has been adapted and modified by other insurgent theorists (e.g., Che Guevara in Cuba and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam) to fit local conditions and cultural differences. As a result, every insurgency has its unique characteristics; however, successful insurgencies also have had certain characteristics in common that constitute the basis of insurgent warfare doctrine.
Four characteristics are particularly significant to the American military : the protractedness of such struggles, the central role of the insurgent political infrastructure, the subsidiary role of insurgent military forces, and the use of guerrilla tactics in military operations.
The first characteristic of successful insurgencies is that they are almost always protracted struggles. Rebels attempting to overthrow an entrenched government usually cannot achieve a quick victory. Time, however, becomes a two-edged sword in the hands of an insurgent, and both edges cut into support for the government and its allies. On one hand, the rebels require time to build their support and strength relative to the government they seek to overthrow.
On the other hand, insurgents use time as a weapon in itself to weaken that same government. Every day that an insurgent movement continues to exist (not to mention continues to operate and grow) discredits the government and its ability to govern and control its own destiny. Every day that an insurgent movement continues to exist adds a degree of legitimacy to the insurgent cause and can eventually create an air of inevitability surrounding an eventual victory for the rebels. In Vietnam, both France and later the United States found that their enemies used time as a potent weapon. The Vietminh and later the Vietcong/North Vietnamese protracted their struggles, waiting for the French and Americans to tire of the endless bloodletting and to abandon their efforts.
The second characteristic of insurgencies is the central role played by their infrastructures. The primary source of an insurgency’s strength is its underground organization—the hostile political infrastructure within the target population. This infrastructure is the single most important ingredient in the insurgent recipe for success and performs several functions vital to the survival, growth, and eventual success of the insurgency: intelligence gathering and transmission ; provision of supplies and financial resources recruitment ; political expansion and penetration; sabotage, terrorism, and intimidation; and establishment of a shadow government.
Accurate and timely intelligence is vital to insurgent success in both political and military actions. Well-placed agents within the government and its military can provide information that, at once, can make government counterinsurgency actions ineffectual and increase the effectiveness of insurgent actions .
Even those agents or sympathizers who are not well placed can provide significant information to the insurgent command structure simply by observing government troop movements or reporting the unguarded conversations of minor government officials. Insurgent sympathizers provide their military forces with important supplies that are readily available within the society under attack.
They can obtain simple medical supplies and clothing in small amounts without suspicion . For those supplies not readily available, “taxes” voluntarily paid by sympathizers and coerced from others provide the means to obtain such needs from foreign sources or corrupt government officials .
If the proselytizing efforts of the insurgent underground succeed and the infrastructure spreads through the population, the government is obviously weakened. In addition, as it spreads through the society, the infrastructure taps into a larger and larger manpower pool from which to draw recruits (volunteers and conscripts) for the rebel armed forces.
This phenomenon explains why it is possible for the size of the rebel military force to increase despite heavy casualties inflicted by government forces. Indeed, if the government concentrates its attention on the insurgent military threat, and thus provides the infrastructure the opportunity to grow unimpeded, the government’s military problem is exacerbated.
Members of the underground are often in positions from which they can effectively conduct sabotage operations against government resources and installations.
Moreover, because they are embedded deeply within the general population, clandestine insurgent cells can effectively engage in or abet acts of terrorism designed to intimidate portions of the population. These activities further weaken support for the government (particularly if the perpetrators are not apprehended) and weaken the will of the population to resist insurgent efforts.
Finally, the insurgent infrastructure can establish its own government as a rival to the authority of the government under siege. This is a particularly effective ploy if certain geographic areas are effectively under the control of the insurgents .
A shadow government challenges the legitimacy of the established government by virtue of its announced political program (calling for solutions to the grievances that produced the insurgency), its control in certain areas, and the inability of the government in power to destroy the insurgency . Further, a shadow government can provide a “legitimate” conduit for support from friendly foreign powers.
The rebel political infrastructure feeds on the perceived grievances that led to the birth of the insurgent movement. The infrastructure is difficult for the government to attack because it is essentially “bulletproof.” (One does not attack a three-person insurgent cell in a Saigon high school with heavy bombers or artillery.) Moreover, if the infrastructure is well constructed (e.g ., small cells with little knowledge of other cells), government forces will have great difficulty in rooting out and destroying the infrastructure with non-military means (i .e., counterintelligence activities and police actions).
The importance of the insurgent infrastructure is mirrored in the third characteristic of successful insurgencies : the subsidiary importance of insurgent military actions. Without question, rebel military actions play an important role in the insurgency, but success on the battlefield is not crucial to the success of the insurgent movement. This explains why insurgent forces can lose virtually every battle and still win the war.
The fourth and final characteristic successful insurgencies have in common is the use of guerrilla tactics. Guerrilla tactics are the classic ploy used by the weak against the strong. Rather than military operations designed to win a quick victory (as in the conventional mold), guerrilla tactics are designed to avoid a decisive defeat at the hands of a stronger enemy.
While conventional forces are constructed around the mobility of large units, guerrilla forces base their operations on the mobility of the individual soldier.
Operating in small units, guerrillas avoid presenting themselves as tempting targets for government forces that usually have vastly superior firepower at their disposal. As a result, guerrillas negate the major advantage of government forces. Guerrillas fight only when it is to their advantage to fight, often quickly concentrating a superior force against an isolated government unit, attacking and then disappearing as quickly and mysteriously as they appeared. Rarely do forces using guerrilla tactics attempt to hold terrain, for to do so invites destruction by superior enemy forces.
The purposes of the guerrilla war are manifold. Even if militarily unsuccessful, insurgent military actions shift government attention away from the activities of the insurgent political infrastructure so that the underground can continue to grow and spread with minimal opposition. Guerrilla attacks harass, demoralise, and embarrass the government, its forces, and its allies . Guerrilla actions can elicit draconian reprisals from a frustrated government. Although reprisals can take a heavy toll of insurgents, they almost inevitably exact a fearful price from bystanders. As a result, such reprisals are often counterproductive because they further alienate the population from the government.
If successful, rebel operations using guerrilla tactics can achieve several favourable results. Support for the insurgents increases or the people take a neutral stance because the government is unable to protect itself or the people. Fatigue and war weariness set in as the struggle becomes more protracted, particularly if the government seems to be making little if any headway against the guerrilla forces. Desertions from the government ranks increase and the underground infrastructure continues to expand, thus compounding the government’s problem almost geometrically.
Eventually, the correlation of forces changes in favour of the insurgents. Insurgent forces mass into large units, using conventional tactics and administer the coup de grace in rapid order.
But the fundamental differences, When taken together, the unique aspects of insurgent warfare indicate that such struggles are fundamentally different from conventional warfare. Rather than a large war writ small, insurgent warfare is at least as different from conventional war as we believe conventional war to be different from nuclear war. Two fundamental differences are of interest here.
Perhaps the most important difference is that in an insurgency, both antagonists have virtually the same centre of gravity. The centre of an insurgency’s strength and the key to its survival and growth is the covert political infrastructure deeply embedded in and permeating the general population. Without some support from the people or at least their neutrality in the struggle (neutrality is a net benefit to the insurgent and is, in effect, passive support), the underground-infrastructure would be quickly exposed and eliminated.
Without an infrastructure, the insurgency has no political arm, is devoid of its intelligence apparatus, and bereft of its principal source of military manpower and logistical support. The besieged government’s power also ultimately depends on the support and loyalty of the general population.
In the long run (and insurgencies certainly qualify as long-run situations), no government can survive without the acquiescence of the people -least of all, a government actively opposed by an attractive and aggressive insurgency.
Thus the centres of gravity of each side in an insurgency are located within the general population. For the insurgency, the centre is its infrastructure with its active and tacit supporters. For the government, it is its supporters. The groups comingle and are virtually indistinguishable.
In conventional warfare, military professionals have long accepted the concept of centres of gravity. The basic military objective in such warfare is to conduct operations that lead to the destruction of the enemy’s centre of gravity while at the same time protecting one’s own vital centres. However in insurgent warfare, the existence of comingled centres of gravity calls this basic military doctrine into serious. Using traditional military means-fire and steel on a target -to destroy the insurgent’s centre of gravity may well also destroy one’s own vital centre.
A second unique feature of insurgent warfare is that insurgent military forces win when they do not lose. Although forces using guerrilla tactics often “lose” small tactical engagements, their dispersed nature and their focus on small-unit actions are designed to avoid anything approaching a decisive defeat. Their survival in the face of often vastly superior government strength adds to their credibility. Conversely, conventional military forces lose when they do not win.
The failure to defeat decisively a military force over which they have great advantages in firepower discredits the government’s military and the government as a whole. The kind of military warfare conducted by insurgents is the antithesis of conventional warfare.
Conventional military forces have continually sought, particularly over the past two centuries, ways to concentrate forces in time and space to achieve quick and decisive victories. Insurgent military forces take the opposite approach by dispersing in space and protracting in time to avoid decisive defeat. While conventional forces attempt to achieve victory by acting faster than the enemy can react, insurgent guerrilla forces seek victory by acting longer than the enemy can react. While conventional forces attempt to provide their enemy with insufficient time, guerrilla forces try their enemy’s patience–time becomes a weapon.
Freelance writer and a strategic researcher